Originally published: February 18, 2011
A Thursday evening in September
There’s the haphazard warm up before things even start. The saxophones – a lone clarinet in their midst - range in age from mid-teens to the upper reaches of middle age. Two altos, two tenors and a baritone stitch separate scales around the skinny drummer with the itchy foot. In back, three older trumpeters purse their lips and one or two hit high notes while the third flips through his charts, brow knit, a spit rag dangling from his palm. Each has a variety of mutes within reach. Across the room, the vocalist wails up and down the scale at the piano.
More musicians, some in workday attire, others in standard issue student wear, stride or stagger in depending upon the heft of their Instruments. Each sets up in front of a stand stamped with the name of this elementary school on Rayburn Street, the regular site of the college’s music rehearsals. In honor of this – and because it makes for a spicier name than the Northern Virginia Community College Jazz Band - the group calls itself the Rayburn Street Jazz Ensemble. As they set up, many greet each other; the violinist calls out cheerfully to the djembe drummer in French, the pianist gives the vocalist a one-armed hug, the lead trombone grins at his neighbor after he trips lightly down the scale like a rippling laugh. The guitar checks his amp while the bass outlines chords softly next to him, squinting at his chart.
The young, slender bandleader writes their rehearsal set list on the whiteboard: Take the A Train, Tangerine, Brazil, Don’t Get Around, Birdland. A smattering of troublesome bars from these begins to sound out furtively from around the room as the musicians squeeze in some pre-emptive practicing.
Time for a concert B-flat and reminders: vibrato on the Ellington – on anything longer than an 8th note! But if playing in unison, give the vibrato a rest. The sax section gets the most attention – the bandleader has his own alto clipped around his neck. Lip up, push in your reed. He needs more sound from the trombones – but heeds the solitary flute player and the violinist. His ear catches what most can’t, and his voice has a pleasantly nasal drawl, a hint of the Bayou about it, though it is rumored that he hails from the north. Maybe this is just what happens to jazz musicians over the years – like a vocal callus. It suits him.
He holds up his hand and says to the group – which has mostly fallen quiet, “OK, let’s take that A Train. Under tempo at first.” He sits in, seeming more comfortable as one of the band than out in front of them. The third trombone rushes into the room, playing her instrument practically right out of the case- no time to lose. The drummer loses the beat with chaotic consequences. The bandleader waves his hand to signal them to stop. OK, again, this time at tempo. He stands behind the first trumpet, frowning at his chart and returns to the front and encourages all the horns to build. The drummer loses them again.
The smooth tune is bumpy. Smiling benignly at the back line, the bandleader says, “Trumpets, when you have your mutes, you have to play out ‘cause you have these five mean saxophone players and they will eat you up! You gotta blow your brains out.” The trumpets nod uncertainly and square their shoulders.
New to them, Tangerine, is next. “Let’s try a little reading and see how we do,” There are questions about the nomenclature. He teaches them hand signals – a fist means go on, for example, and when he pats his shoulders with both hands, he wants them to provide background for the soloist. There is breathless magic as they play and pull it off all together. He throws the choice out to them – keep Tangerine in, or throw it out? They look around at each other. It’ll stay for now.
Next up, Brazil – slowly, as they sight-read the charts. It seems moribund at halfway, but mysteriously revives, the bossa nova beat breathing life back into it. He gives them a rascally smile. “Just for fun, should we try it at tempo?” They groan, then go on, surviving the key change. He looks around gently as they catch their breaths and wiggle their fingers. “OK, I think I got enough information. We’ll keep it in for now.”
Don’t Get Around Much Anymore condemns them to more sight-reading – and the challenge of supporting a vocalist. She has trouble competing with the trumpets, even with her microphone. She gets lost – or the band does, or they simply lose each other. They seem to be in different rooms, speaking different languages. She loses her key completely – then finds it. The band wanders inside the arrangement like actors who have wandered onto an unfamiliar set. But the next run-through has fewer surprises, and they decide, for now, to keep this one in the book, too.
Birdland, the bandleader tells the younger members, was named after Charlie Parker’s club in New York City. “It’s got a rock feel to it, so don’t swing it,” he cautions. It begins ferociously, and as the trumpets struggle to make sense of it, the baritone sax valiantly holds them all together when they threaten to fall apart. The bandleader stops them. Surveying the group, he says, “Hey guys, come with me for a second,” He tells them about the Spanish Tinge, about how Jelly Roll Morton coined the phrase to introduce an Afro-Caribbean feel into jazz. They listen, in various states of attention, and after some debate on the charts, they go again from bar 77 – “If the trumpeters’ chops will hold up,” he smiles. After the last notes have stopped ringing he says to the drummer, “You hear how sloppy they sound? That’s your fault.” The drummer blushes and says he knows.
A Thursday evening in November
Hayburner is going well this evening. The bandleader confesses to the group that back in September he wasn’t sure if they could handle this challenging music, but that he is pleasantly surprised. “You’re sounding pretty good,” It is at this moment that the first alto saxophone confesses he can’t find several of his charts and did the bandleader perhaps have any copies that he might borrow...? The bandleader’s face doesn’t betray much but there is a certain rigidity in his manor when he says no, it is a musician’s responsibility to always have his charts and the first alto, a sunny, open-faced young guy, nods and quietly withers. The vibes player is noodling around, and the bandleader, uncharacteristically crisp, says, “And we can do without that.” Their first gig is in a week, so this is their last rehearsal. He passes out flyers for them to post wherever they might be seen.
It is a subdued group that then tackles Tangerine. Both tenor saxes are absent, as is one of the trumpets. Everyone is chastened. A cautious Somewhere Over the Rainbow follows, the vocalist still unsteady and, with a weak PA system, repeatedly overwhelmed by the horns. The drummer stubbornly keeps his own time despite the singer’s frantic vocal cues at a denouement. The bandleader stops him and smiling wryly says, “There’s no point in my waving my hands around if you don’t follow me. I just look dumb.” As the group laughs, the drummer stammers that he had no intention of doing that. The leader reminds his band to look up at him so he can guide them to the necessary ritardando. The next run-through is an improvement.
Blues in B-flat is a loose structure for improvisation. The alto sax (with the missing charts) solos beautifully, as the second alto and baritone support him. The violin gets her nod, leaps to her feet and practically dances as she plays. With this number, the bandleader has succeeded in loosening them up.
After explaining to the group that a riff is a melodic idea that repeats then builds to an exciting peak, he has them begin Blue Bossa. As they play, the bandleader shows the bass what he’s looking for, and next moves over to the particularly young 2nd alto who then stands and takes a self-conscious solo. The leader nods to the trombone to take the next. They move on to Sophisticated Lady, a drunken slow-dance of a tune - a woman can almost feel the too-familiar hands creeping down the dip in the back of her gown.
Take the A Train needs work. He reminds them of how fast and unforgiving the New York subway is – then pauses and looks around the room. “How many of you have been to New York?” Some nod knowingly but many of the youngest are shaking their heads. He smiles. “Well, the New York subway isn’t the Metro, you know.” Everyone chuckles, acknowledging the prissy reputation of Washington’s metro.
The leader shakes his head during Don’t get Around Much Anymore “That’s our sloppiest song right now,” He is resigned. But the most difficult still remains. Birdland, with all its changes and odd rhythms and fusion elements is the run-away train A Train isn’t yet. The rehearsal is almost over – only seven minutes remaining. This arrangement jumps right in with just about every band member in tow – yanked straight off the dock. It’s out of control in parts, the trumpets racing to catch up, stumbling here and there, but in several places it all comes together and the band catches its collective breath. They make it through once before they have to stop and make room for the large symphonic band that has the use of the room at 7:00. Already the next community of musicians is circling, beginning to move chairs and open cases.
The bandleader thanks his people, reminding them of the dress code for the following week’s performance in the school cafeteria as they pack up.
Next Thursday evening in November
The cafeteria is humming with conversation and the sound of food being both consumed and discarded. The Rayburn Street Jazz Band filters in, snappily dressed in black formalwear, and begin clearing the space in front of the windows. The round communal dining tables are shoved back – and then back some more - as extra chairs and music stands are fetched and maneuvered into the tight space. The violinist snaps a few pictures as her friend the drummer races in after six. Luckily they are running late.
In a moment they’ll begin. After the first two numbers, the bandleader will promote the program to the audience, inviting the musicians in the crowd to come rehearse with them. Relaxed and personable, he’ll help the audience know when to applaud - always tricky for the uncertain jazz listener. The band will play up to the occasion – play their best yet - the vocalist will sparkle and sound more confident, and despite some dicey moments during Birdland and Take the A Train - and a comical scene when the clarinet’s quick rise from his seat for a solo scatters the charts from his neighbor’s stand - they will do well.
But for now, the bandleader stands and smiles at them, his back to the mundane cafeteria activity. The players look sharp in their dress-ups, even if the jackets of the younger members seem a bit ample in the shoulders, a little long in the pants that fold onto the tops of their stiff shoes. They all look back at him, instruments poised.
He counts off, they take a big breath and - begin.